The Air-King is back, again! First introduced in 1945, the timepiece was built to honour the pilots of the British Royal Air Force who fought in World War II. The original design was very similar to that of the Rolex Oyster, with a small case and simple dial. In 1957, Rolex updated the Air-King with a new case and dial design, which was more in line with the other Rolex Sports models. However, in 2014, Rolex discontinued the Air-King, only for it to make a comeback in 2016 as the Rolex Air-King Ref. 116900. And this year, in March, the Maison has launched yet another iteration of the Air-King, the Oyster Perpetual Air-King Ref. 126900.
As the aviator’s watch gets another makeover, here’s a comparison of the old and the new.
Enhanced readability of the dial
A criticism of the 2016 Air-King was that the dial did not feature luminescent hour markers for 12, 3, 6 and 9. Instead, they were fashioned with white gold. Because of that, the numerals often felt lost on the black Explorer-style dial, which was introduced for the first time in this version. In the 2022 iteration, the dial has been updated to feature a Chromalight display with luminescent hour markers 12, 3, 6 and 9. Adding to the overall clarity of the dial is the number ‘0’ placed before ‘5’. The upgrade enhances the cohesion and readability of the new dial.
Sturdier and broader case design
At first glance, the 2022 watch might seem like a reimagination of its older versions. However, take a closer look and you find, plenty has changed. For one, the body represents the renowned GMT-Master II shape, a departure from the Milgauss-style case design of the 2016 version. Secondly, the proportions of the Oyster bracelet have changed, too, thus giving way to broader lugs that accommodate the wider bracelet. More Professional-inspired than ever, the bracelet has widened centre links and, for the first time, an Oyster safety clasp.
Upgraded and powerful built
The 2016 Air-King boasted a slightly different shape than its previous versions, with more curved lugs and a domed bezel. Plus, acrylic crystal was replaced with synthetic sapphire for greater sturdiness. In the new one, however, for the first time, there is a non-functioning bezel and crown guards! These new elements make the watch all the more robust. Moreover, as is characteristic to Rolex, the 2022 version features advanced movement, thanks to the new calibre 3230. The 2016 iteration was powered by calibre 3131.
The watches are not without some similarities
When the Air-King was re-introduced in 2016, the first thing people noticed was its size. At 40mm, it was 2mm larger than the previous model and on par with other Rolex Sports models like the Explorer and GMT-Master II. The new Air-King retains this size. Bulky as it may be, it doesn’t seem unnatural on the wrist. Plus, the 2016 Air-King’s caseback was updated with a new “perpetual rotor” design, which continues to exist on the new version. This is a feature that’s usually reserved for Rolex’s higher-end models, and it’s a nice touch on the Air-King. Additionally, Air-King watches were always known for their affordability and ease of wear; that aspect, too, continues to be a differentiator for the collection. And, as is the case with all Rolex watches, the Air-Kings boast the Superlative Chronometer certification.
Ultimately, the Air-King is a pilot’s watch. With a dial inspired by the Bloodhound SSC supersonic vehicle and colours emblematic of historic Air-Kings, the 2022 Oyster Perpetual Air-King with its differences and similarities is definitely one to watch.
Last year, the Air-King 2016 was discontinued, thus putting the spotlight wholly on the new Air-King.